GODZILLA VS. CYNEMA

June 1, 2019

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

Cynema or Not Cynema

I started this blog not to review movies, but to examine the effects of cynicism on filmmaking. If you go through these posts you’ll find they aren’t reviews but rather how we view our entertainment and often take it for granted while lowering our acceptance standards.

SPOILERS AHEAD! GOT IT? SPOILERS AHEAD! TURN BACK!

You can read why I qualify the 1998 Matthew Broderick Godzilla in a previous post HERE.

Warners and Legendary really hyped the marketing on Godzilla King of the Monsters and I gotta give props to the campaign. From the very first trailer, the strategy was to show this was a major departure from the Gareth Edwards 2014 film. Many will concur that a major shortfall of that film was there just wasn’t enough Godzilla. There wasn’t enough Bryan Cranston and a little too much Kick Ass but not the monster kick ass action we hoped for.

What Edwards did achieve was dispelling the stain of Roland Emerich’s 1998 film and restoring Godzilla to a serious, regal character and cementing him as a kind of world protector, just don’t piss him off. The new film follows up on that with a great line after one of the characters admits relief that Godzilla is on our side.

“For now,” another scientist replies.

Indeed.

Gareth Edwards helped mold Godzilla into a kaiju Dark Knight–an avenger who will never be totally trusted or accepted by the establishment and as this new film shows…also hunted. We open in the wake of Godzilla’s 2014 rampage through San Francisco to a Senate panel on the verge of declaring war on him and his ilk. Only the brilliant and wise Dr. Serizawa keeps the rabid panel at bay.

The 2014 film had issues, but Cynema was not one of them. It was well made and with respect for the monster’s 60 years of fans who grew up with him. Top line cast, special effects and production values–all films have issues, but Cynema was not one of them here.

Over The Top. Over the Rainbow

The advertising campaign heated up around Christmas 2018 with a beautiful and moving musical piece that just might be the most lyrical monster commercial ever made. You can find all of these on YouTube. From there the marketing took the “ironic trailer” bent. You know what that is? That’s when you take a song or some piece of audio that you would least expect to accompany a movie’s content and merge them.

The Shallows did this with old school self-improvement audio from some lecturer merged with building suspense of Blake Lively coming into the sights of her shark nemesis. It worked for the most part.

Legendary and Warners chose The Wizard of Oz’s “Over the Rainbow” with a maudlin, instrumental version that gave us Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra…oh my! (See what they did there?) It also hinted that there would be more of a mystical bent to this film than its predecessor. Mothra would carry the mystic chores as she has done in the original films. She’s not really a battle kaiju. Mothra’s always had another calling.

A lot of footage, and I mean a lot…was released in trailer/teaser form. Whether for TV or web blurbs, Legendary was making it clear: you are getting a shitload of monsters in this film. Any of you still bitching there was less than 15 minutes of Godzilla in the first film will CHOKE on monsters this time around. That poses its own problems.

They delivered.

King of the Monsters

I am not a blind fanboy. The original Godzilla films are uneven in quality, to be kind. The first is the best because it’s the first and it had a real message. Godzilla started as a bitch slap to mankind in what is known as The Showa series of films. He then made the image rehab to defender of the earth and hero to children. The Jun Fakuda series of films cribbed previous effects footage and showed a huge deterioration in budgets and production values. By the time Godzilla walked off into the sunset in 1975 in the last Showa series film, it was long overdue.

The Heisei series (1984-1995) reinvented the monster’s origins and made him closer to what he is now. These films painted Godzilla as a pissed off king who will help his human cohabitants if it happens. Otherwise he was there to beat the shit out of whatever new monster that came along.

Toho killed the big guy off in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyer(ah) and this is where Cynema comes into play. The company then handed off their beast for an American production. By now we all know what we got, and when it failed, Toho denied responsibility. I feel they were absolutely complicit in the awful direction Tri Star and Centropolis were allowed to go.

The 1998 film was an affront to fans across the globe and a cash grab made by people who had no respect for the monster or its history.

Toho responded by creating “The Millennial Series” of Godzilla films with Godzilla 2000 which gave us our first green Godzilla with new spikes and a new look for the new century.

Those films were almost stand-alones, barely connected to each other and never quite took off like the Heisei series of films just before it. They and the other films of the 2000s helped to dispel the stigma of the 1998 abomination.

What Doesn’t Work About King of the Monsters?

I hate listing “bad things.” This is not a review. However, by showing I am not some blind Godzilla fanboy with an agenda, it’s best to present the shortfalls of the film; because not a single one of them cripples this motion picture. Most of them are subjective.

Too Much Going On and Too Many Characters Equals Sensory Overload

We have a lot of monsters but we also have a lot of human characters. Aside from Dr. Serizawa who is the moral compass of this film and its predecessor we have good guys and bad guys headlined by Millie Bobby Brown. Brown manages to put in a performance and not just be “Eleven” in a stranger things kaiju film.

We do have a lot of people and aside from Serizawa it’s a tad hard figuring out what the supporting characters do. Charles Dance is a bad guy. Vera Farmiga is bad. Kyle Chandler is a good guy and a mourning dad who is Ahab to Godzilla’s Moby Dick. We have Sally Hawkins back as Ken Watanabe’s partner, but she becomes kaiju food before the second act. That was probably best as she really didn’t have a lot do, but more on her death in a moment.

You could have effectively cut the human characters in half and had a much more effective story.

Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe, Kyle Chandler, Farmiga and Brown. That’s all you needed.

David Strathairn seems to return just to return. He looks grave, introduces The Oxygen Destroyer and then  vanishes. To be fair, they didn’t give this great actor a hell of a lot do in the first film except contradict Ken Watanabe a lot. Strathairn’s exposition speech on the aircraft carrier in the 2014 film is embarrassingly amateur screenwriting 101. Watch it again as he tells us, the audience about the MUTOs and how they will be found. Just who the hell is the guy talking to as soldiers busy themselves in the background like 50s background workers.

When he is done with his speech, no one seemed to listen and he told us what we should’ve seen. Watch it here and you’ll see.

2019’s sequel gives us a story of eco terrorists, revenge and redemption. We have wise-cracking military people and scientists who we really don’t know what they do. A subsequent viewing may clear that up, but it shows just how much has been packed into this movie and contributes to story overload. There’s a lot of “Wait, how did these people get there? What are they doing? Where are they now?” Repeat.

The entire eco terrorism subplot was just overload. Vera Farmiga didn’t have to feign ignorance in being kidnapped for the sake of her daughter. Later we find out that Millie was in on the thing, even though it went off script. So why bother with all of that? Streamline the story, give us some time to catch our breath with all the monster action.

Brighten It Up

Almost all of the monster action is at night and against green screens. It makes it hard to see what is going on. When we do get a day time scene later in the film, it is startling for two reasons: it’s real daylight and it’s not CGI. Amazing how our eyes start trick the brain and what we see as digital and practical.

I get why they chose darkness form a story standpoint with King Ghidorah’s storm powers but I suspect night was chosen for the lion’s share of the fights because it masks CGI defects and helps speed things along in post. Maybe that’s a bit cynical of me to say, but I might be right. Kong Skull Island had some serious monster action under overcast day lit skies. It made a big difference and should’ve been used here. Remember they used rain in Jurassic Park and in the 1998 Godzilla to help mask CGI defects.

Action! Action! Action!

This is not the 2014 film and from the opening which eschews major opening titles, it drops you into the destruction of San Francisco in 2014. From there we get some character development (very light) but then right back to monsters. Watch the film and see…just when you think the basic dialogue scenes start to feel too long they cut to monster action.

Director Michael Dougherty knows his stuff and listened to the issues of the previous film. He might’ve gone a little over the top. When Sally Hawkins’s character perishes it happens so damned fast it took a follow up scene showing her photo to telegraph to me she died. Maybe I just missed something. I know right about where it happened but man, that was fast! Snap! She’s gone and we go, oh wow, she died in the next scene.

Much of the monster action is shot in close up and there are few wide shots of fighting. This poses a problem because its hard to process all that is going on. On top of it the edits are so fast we often have to fill in the gaps as to what we just saw. Dougherty doesn’t HOLD long enough on certain shots and he should because they are brilliant.

There are few long shots of city destruction and when they come again, they are cut too short. Just as our eye takes in these wonderful images, they are gone. Just a few seconds more to linger would’ve been nice. In a scene where Godzilla leaps from the ocean to take out Ghidorah only seconds before it closes in on the Argo flying bomber jet, I had to rethink at what I saw. It was way too close. Was that Godzilla? I mean, I am sure it was and I get the surprise element but I remember the audience WANTING to applaud and some did but it seemed like confused “what just happened and should I be applauding?” applause.

A nice wide shot outside the jet from the side or behind would’ve been just as effective and given our brains a little more to work with visually.

The same could be said for the destruction of Washington, DC. It’s the nation’s capitol and not one really good, clean wide establishing shot of the city under siege by Ghidorah. The screen is packed with funnel clouds and cyclonic skies and lightning and we see the Capitol Building as if this were used for visual shorthand. Why not a few good drone shots of the town, a broken Washington Monument, a destroyed White House…take some time to show one of the most iconic cities in the world in ruins. Don’t just throw in basically one wide shot with the Capitol dome telling us the city is wrecked.

Finally, it just starts to become too much. Explosions. Monsters. Plane crashes. Guns. Shit man, calm down just a little. Ease up. We finally get some quiet, good drama in a beautiful undersea scene with Serizawa and Godzilla. I will list that below.

Plot Overload

You can pack a script with monsters but you need to frame them with a good story. We are told about 17 monsters have awakened across the globe, not including Godzilla. That’s cool, but we then add eco terrorists, espionage, betrayal, lots and lots of science and technology talk. I heard a person sitting next to me ask his son, “Do you understand what The Orca does?” The pre-teen shrugged and shook his head. Nope. No clue.

We have Chandler’s avenging of his son. He blames Godzilla and his wife and daughter understand but did we really need all of that? The dead son doesn’t really come to the fore and that whole sub plot could’ve been erased. Godzilla saves Chandler’s ass just once and all is forgiven. After a lengthy set up that de-escalated quickly. You know the inevitable “Would he have wanted it this way, mom?” line is coming. It might as well have been coupled with “You can’t live for dead people!” line. The whole dead son thing is another element that could’ve gone by the wayside.

Why not pit Serizawa against Charles Dance’s Jonah? Make them a Kirk and Khan rivalry with instead of starships, they use monsters to fight their battles? Would’ve streamlined a lot. True good vs. evil with the earth caught in between.

Oh wait…now we have an undersea city…Godzilla’s Bat Cave and we have all the plot and exposition that goes with this.

It was a lot to absorb and process. There were times that I didn’t know WHERE the characters were. I mean literally, like were they on the destroyer ship, the stealth bomber, the underwater base? When all you have are a lot of viewing screens as you backdrops and few establishing, well-lit shots, you become a bis disoriented.

 

Add to it HUGE amounts of monster action, and it’s sensory overload.

In the overall scheme, we paid to see good monster action, and this, boys and girls, is what the film delivers–whether that’s a good or bad thing.

What Works?

There’s almost too much to list here but to sum it up, what works is that you have a filmmaking team that love Godzilla, saw the old films and translated that love into an endearing film that doesn’t trip all over its reverence.

The Music

The score brought tears to my eyes. The original Ifukube score is alive and well and seamlessly stitched into a contemporary movie score. From Godzilla’s main theme, the civil defense march and then…Mothra’s theme…the audience applauded when they heard the cues. This is a man who, if he doesn’t love Godzilla, he researched him and had respect for him. However, there is so much heart and beauty in his score, it’s definitive of this being devoid of Cynema.

The genius work in using “Over the Rainbow” for the trailers spilled over into Bear McCreary’s compositions. He should be commended. He nailed it and he did it without hitting us over the head and force feeding it. He gave us old themes to a new audience and when I left I heard kids singing Godzilla’s theme. That’s magic.

The Effects

Aside from going in too close and against night backdrops and not holding long enough or giving us longer wide shots, the effects are top of the line. Ghidorah’s heads have their own personalities. I heard one kid exclaim, “The middle head is the boss!” Indeed, kid. Indeed.

Godzilla is amazing, giving us much more depth in his eyes and mannerisms. He is a hero, a god and everything about his image says “don’t fuck with him.” Rodan gets his own show and comes through in the personality department. Now part volcanic creature, fire Rodan was a hit and his emergence from his volcano prison was a stand out effect in the film.

Mothra brings the beauty to it all. She is dangerous looking and yet “The Queen of the Monsters” is radiant and gorgeous. She is elegant and she is poised. She sacrifices her life, as she always does, for the greater good. She is the yin to Godzilla’s yang. She saves him so he can save us all. You can’t not love Mothra, the earth’s mother protector. Make no mistake, the effects artists gave her the ability to kick ass and Rodan finds this out first hand at the end of the film. They even worked in a little Charlotte’s Web action in there. Bravo.

Ghidorah is badass. There is no doubt. Three separate heads with three personalities, the beast sometimes moves like a dragon with its wings and then able to lift Godzilla into the sky to drop him like an atomic bomb. Ghidorah is so strong that they make sure that we have not seen the last of him as the power to regenerate was nicely put into action with this installment.

The other monsters are great but I wondered why we didn’t see more familiar faces? Where was Manda? Varan? Even Gorosaurus? We got Spiga but we got another MUTO on steroids and a Woolly Mammoth crossed with King Kong. Hey, whatever works. The effects were terrific.

Ken Watanabe

Watanabe’s performance as Dr. Serizawa was the glue that held the first film together. Serizawa is Jim Gordon to Godzilla’s Batman. He shines in King of the Monsters, acting as a Greek Chorus to the parade of monsters;  Godzilla’s only human ally and as we find out by the end, his friend. Serizawa selflessly sacrifices himself (as did the original) at the end. His last moment on earth with Godzilla brought tears to my eyes and when he uttered his final words to the beast, it solidified the film’s heart and soul. The scene between man and monster was moving, poignant and the center to everything. It delivers and you will see–the scene is beautiful.

Watanabe provides the best human performance in the film and redeems the lack of character depth and story issues. That’s because his performance is honest and simple. As all good stories should be.

I Want An Easter Egg, Easter Egg, Easter Egg!

There are way too many Easter eggs in this movie and that is great. They are so well-woven into the fabric of this film that you need to see it multiple times to catch them all. I won’t list them here because I can’t name them all. Sometimes things went by so fast I had to ask, “was that what I thought it was?”

The musical score is only one layer of Easter eggs. I can tell you this, Mothra’s fairies are in there. There are plenty of Jaws references like the 2014 film. Listen for the USS Brody to be announced and a serviceman extra given a closeup simply for his badge name: “Hendricks.” Then there is “The Orca” the device that communicates with the kaiju and also the name of Quint’s beloved boat.

There are references to The Thing, Jurassic Park and more.

Burning Godzilla from the 1995 film, Monster Zero…Seatopia (maybe?) the list goes on. I need a second viewing just to find all of these eggs. It’s a search I look forward to.

Michael Dougherty

His direction was deft because he stepped respectfully on fertile, hallowed ground. He wove tributes to the original films into a new narrative without spoon feeding. He gave us a more regal and heroic Godzilla who is not to be fucked with. We leave with Godzilla bigger, badder and better understood. He gave Godzilla a wonderful character arc…more than any of the human characters outside of Dr. Serizawa.

Dougherty gave his beasts animalistic action and guided the script’s alpha theme all the way through to a solid conclusion. He handled his human characters as best as the script allowed because there were just too many of them. He kept Bobby Brown from being “Eleven” and he gave us a cool Tarkin-like villain in Charles Dance. The post credit scene at the end sets Dance up as a formidable human villain like Dr. Who from “King Kong Escapes.” I hope we see that come to the fore in Godzilla vs. Kong.

Most of all, Dougherty loves Godzilla, the beast himself. When Godzilla resurrects after the help of Mothra and Dr. Serizawa, my God is it chilling and spine-tingling. Here he allows his camera to linger and take in the scope and magnificence of the king kaju Toho gave us. This scene alone is worth the ticket price.

So…

Dougherty is the director. So success or failure, right or wrong, it all comes back on him. He could’ve given us a cynical film, a cash grab and walked away.

Instead he upped the ante, throwing all the chips in and letting them fall where they may. You can’t have over the top monster action and rich characters perfectly. You have to find the right balance in a film like this and for the most part, Godzilla King of the Monsters succeeds.

Adam Wingard, you’re next. Your work is cut out for you.

Listen to my Cynema podcast found on iTunes, YouTube, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeart Radio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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